Is God impassible? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
There is sadly a disconnect in the church. Too many of us have not gone back to our historical roots and wrestled with what we have. Yes. We affirm the Trinity (And the virgin birth), but the doctrine of the Trinity did not just fall out of the sky. Jesus did not go around teaching the Chalcedonian Creed or the Nicene Creed. You won’t find any of those fully written in the Pauline epistles. These doctrines took centuries to work out.
It’s tempting for us sometimes to remove those barriers and reject what long came before us. It should never be done lightly. If we see that the church affirmed something we don’t understand, it can help to see why they did. Consider if you were making a statement about the nature of God. Suppose you established that He existed. Now you want to go through and describe each of His attributes. Which do you start with?
Do you know where Aquinas started next?
Why? Because working systematically, Aquinas knew that if you deny simplicity, you will not properly understand all the other attributes of God, including His love. Simplicity could be asking “What does it take for God to be God?” If you believe that God needs nothing at all to be God and is already God in who He is for all eternity, then you to some extent hold to simplicity.
Now one other truth the church held, and this means universal, Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox, was that God was impassible. God could not be moved. It’s not that you’re suffering so much and you eventually get God to a point in prayer where He says “I can’t take it anymore! Fine! I’ll give you what you want!” It is explained to us analogically that way because that is how it can look to us, but you cannot wear God down. How do you think you could outlast God?
So in this discussion, I have been sent this article.
I am pleased to see that it is written by some qualified theologians. I am also pleased to say they are speaking of impassibility and know what it is. This is discussion that needs to happen in the church. Let’s look at this paragraph.
The basic concern here is an important one: the Bible is clear that God is not dependent on his creation in any way (i.e., he is truly transcendent), and therefore he cannot be at its mercy, involuntarily affected by it, reeling in reaction to what he has made, and thus on some level controlled by it. In other words, what he has created cannot afflict him with suffering or make him feel anything.
This is an important point and I agree. Reality, you cannot make anyone feel anything. You cannot make yourself feel anything. If you can, make yourself feel happy all the time. Won’t work. Sometimes a husband or wife can say to the other “You make me so angry” or some other emotion. Nope. They don’t have that power. (Pro-tip though guys. Probably not wise to say that to your wife in the heat of an argument.) You need to own your emotions. This is especially so in our age where everyone else is supposedly responsible because someone else feels offended.
For most of us it matters a great deal that God has emotions for very personal reasons. At stake is whether or not God really understands and cares about our experiences, especially our suffering. To say that God is impassible seems to suggest that perhaps he doesn’t. Since he can’t suffer, how could he possibly understand? And if he doesn’t understand, how could he care? We want to know that God relates to us emotionally without having the problems that our emotions create for us.
So let us be clear: God does understand, and he does care.
Here is where we can get into part of the problem. It is assumed that if God loves us and if He cares for us, then He has emotions. The problem is every theologian who holds to impassibility in the Christian tradition agrees that He loves us and cares for us.
When you deal with a complex theological argument, a simple statement like “God loves us” is not going to change the other person’s mind. Anyone who is married or has been married knows that the emotion of love fades. However, that does not mean love fades. That’s one of the reason sadly our divorce culture is such a prominent problem. We base the covenant relationship on a feeling and when that feeling fades, well then what? There is a danger to the idea in the song of being “hooked on a feeling.”
We could ask how much we do this in other places. Do we know we are “close to God” because of a feeling we have? If so, could we not be really pursuing that feeling instead of God and thinking that feeling is evidence of a truth? We all should know we are good at deceiving ourselves. Many of us have had feelings, good and bad, that have not been accurate in the past. Actually, most likely all of us have.
God cared enough about understanding us that God the Son stepped into our shoes by taking on a human nature. Jesus’s flesh and bone are proof that God has established a deep connection to our emotional experience and he wants us to know about it. In fact, he demonstrates his solidarity with us, in particular, through Jesus’s suffering. Jesus’s trials and temptations validate the bond he has with us as our Priest, the One who can truly represent us to God in our misery. Jesus really suffered as a flesh-and-blood human being. He really gets it, so when he tells us that he cares, we can know that he means it. And because he really gets it and experienced suffering without sin, God the Son can faithfully communicate that experience to his Father.
I hesitate to use the term solidarity. The Son enters into our experiences, but the Father and the Spirit do not. The incarnation demonstrates though the love that the Godhead has for us. I can say that fully as a theologian who holds to impassibility. God loves us. His love does not depend on an emotional action in Him that we generate. It depends endlessly on His timeless unchanging nature, which also means His love will never change. We can do NOTHING to make God love us more. We can do NOTHING to make God love us less. God actually CANNOT love us more than He does.
But impassibility matters for other reasons as well. Some important attributes of God are at stake. In particular, whatever similarity exists between God’s emotions and ours ought not undermine God’s unchanging character (immutability), which undergirds his faithfulness and ability to save us.
Looking at this, it’s important to note that at this time, it looks like these theologians are not denying impassibility, and they are right. Other doctrines are at stake. Immutability has been held by the church for ages. This would also entail simplicity, which I suspect is another can of worms the authors don’t want to deal with at this time, which is fine. It deserves an article in itself.
So in what sense does God have emotions? Traditionally theologians have made a distinction between passions and affections. Historically passions described the more physical aspect of emotions, which, as we explained earlier, means that to some extent our bodies are always shaping our emotions. We don’t want to say that about God, though, because God doesn’t have a body, and God doesn’t get cranky when his blood sugar drops. The church fathers used the term passions to describe what God doesn’t have in order to defend against heresies which taught that the Father suffered on the cross1 or that God compromised his divine nature2 in order to accomplish salvation. In this sense, we ought to deny that God has passions. He is impassible, meaning that the creation or his creatures cannot push him around emotionally.
For the most part, I agree with this. Note also they say that this was done to defend against heresies also that the Father suffered on the cross. We cannot say that because Jesus took on human nature, whatever Jesus has in His humanity, God has in His divinity, unless you want to say that the Father died on the cross or that He gets hungry and thirsty and needs to sleep or that the Father could poop a diaper.
DeYoung goes on to capture the core beauty of God’s impassibility by saying that God “is love to the maximum at every moment. He cannot change because he cannot possibly be any more loving, or any more just, or any more good. God cares for us, but it is not a care subject to spasms or fluctuations of intensity.”4 Thus, while it might appear at first that the doctrine of God’s impassibility will leave us with a cold, distant, and disconnected deity, instead the exact opposite is true: the glorious fact that God cannot and does not change means we can completely rely on his heart bursting with love, compassion, pity, tenderness, and anger at injustice; we can delight in his works, knowing he will always do them with these attributes without tiring. God’s impassibility is actually the grounding hope of our ability to know and trust his emotions.
The only part of this I would disagree with is of God having emotions. I would say we could say affections if we mean something analogous to what we have. As has been said before in our understanding of God, it would be strange if God were not strange.
In other words, God doesn’t have passions in that he is not jerked around by creation. God doesn’t have “good” days and “bad” days. The early fathers were not arguing that God is dispassionate but rather speaking in a philosophically credible way about how God is different from creatures. But these impassibility formulations should not compel us to say that God is in no way like us emotionally. We are passible and God is impassible. God is not like us in some important ways, and he is like us in important ways. God is energetically enthused and emotionally invested in creation by his own free and consistent choice, but God’s emotional life does not compromise his character or change his essence.
One major difference I want to say here is that God is not like us in any way. We are like Him. That is something highly important. As God says in Isaiah, “To whom will you compare me?” Answer. No one. (Isaiah 40:25) A father who says “Well, I have a son and I guess God is like that” has it backwards. He should say “God has a Son, and I am kind of like that.” Note that these authors do say that God’s essence is not changing.
Let’s return to the issue at stake for most readers: When you’re suffering, does God care? Of course God cares if you’re suffering. Not only does he care; he cares that you know he understands. Because Jesus is our High Priest, Jesus in his human nature understands suffering existentially and physically. Because of both Jesus’s purity and his human passion, God is uniquely qualified to empathize with you in Christ.
With this, I will say that yes, God cares about our suffering. As someone who holds to impassibility, I still have had no problem in the pain of my divorce going to God regularly knowing that God has love for me and wants the best for me as well. I sometimes say there is one thing God and I definitely both have in common. We hate divorce. I also fully agree that Jesus definitely knows what it is like. Jesus knows what it is like to be rejected by the one you love. He knows it especially in that His love crucified Him. (I suppose I can say I’m thankful my ex at least didn’t do that!)
However, in conclusion, I really don’t think the authors have made a case for God having emotions. They have made a case for God having love and care, but that has never been denied by anyone who holds to impassibility. Still, I think their case is much more reasoned out and better thought through than too many today. If you want to deny simplicity and impassibility, it is good to go back and ask why all branches of Christianity have historically held to this doctrine.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)